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Rural COVID, Urban COVID: Africa Sees Sharp Divide 

A South African woman is briefed before taking a COVID-19 test at the Ndlovu clinic in Groblersdal , 200 kms north-east of Johannesburg, Thursday Feb. 11, 2021.
A South African woman is briefed before taking a COVID-19 test at the Ndlovu clinic in Groblersdal , 200 kms north-east of Johannesburg, Thursday Feb. 11, 2021.

It is hard to see COVID-19 here, in the small village of KaMatsamo. Goats pick their way through a path that runs from the highway, the main thoroughfare in this South African town of some 23,000 people.

On a recent day, most residents were not diligently wearing masks outdoors, as is the law. About half were.

Africa’s megacities will bear deep scars from this coronavirus pandemic. But 59% of the continent’s population lives in rural areas, according to the World Bank, and large-scale lockdowns have effectively sealed off these rural areas — for better and for worse, residents say.

On a recent fall day, VOA spoke to a group of residents who had gathered by the side of the road in this town just 12 square kilometers in size. Several said they knew of someone who had contracted COVID-19 — but most said that they did not think the virus itself has penetrated their community to the extent that it has urban areas.

But the pandemic is deeply felt here, say residents — who point not to death tolls, but to economic and social devastation. South Africa is the continent’s epicenter, with more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 52,000 deaths.

Phakade Sambo is a bright 22-year-old with a dream — one that she said the pandemic has slashed.

“It's been a problem — like, a really problem, a big problem — to me,” she said.

She wants to learn a trade and, eventually, set up her own carpentry shop.

“I can't continue with my carpentry studies,” she said, after re-adjusting an already neat row of avocados at her roadside stall. “I just stopped, and I can't even start my own business because the money is too low. People are complaining they can't even buy this fruit, they are complaining They say it's too much money, I'm being expensive or something. They say that.”

Data about COVID’s impact on Africa’s urban-rural divide is still being gathered. But one recent study from a group of Nigerian and British researchers warns that rural African communities risk being left behind in the pandemic because of the lack of amenities like good road networks, clinics and hospitals.

Freddy Nkosi, Congo country director at VillageReach, an NGO that focuses on remote, rural low-income countries, says the big efforts like, say, vaccination, are that much more difficult in rural settings.

“You need to keep the vaccines in the cold-chain environments and you need to train the people who will transport the vaccines,” he said. “You need to train the people who will be using the vaccines, I mean the health workers. So getting all these different pieces of puzzles in the very short period of time, that's very, very challenging.”

For a town like KaMatsamo, which is less than a day’s drive from Johannesburg, that is doable. And for that reason, residents say they feel safer here than in the city.

“It's better to stay in a small place because we have small [number of] people, than in big cities,” said supermarket worker Sam Limana. “Because in the big cities, because there’s a lot of people, some of them, they don't know about COVID, they’re stubborn, they don’t know about this, they don’t care about this.”

“I think around the rural area, it's much better than the city, because there's not a lot of people,” said security guard Zama Changela, who said he lost a colleague to the virus. “I think it's safe to be in a rural area.”

But VillageReach South Africa director Nkosi says his experience in the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa is concerning.

“I travel in over five provinces so far, where I see a disparity between what is happening in the urban area, or in Kinshasa, and what is happening in most of the rural areas, where, for example, if I have to start with the health workers and commit to health workers in the rural areas, they have limited access to personal protective equipment compared to those who are in the urban areas,” he said.

But here is the thing: rural African life has always been rich, complex and — perhaps above all — resilient. For hundreds of years, this area was a settlement of the Shongwe Matsamo people, a brave society who valiantly defended the Swazi king against attacks.

And then, in the late 1800s: catastrophe. Within a few years, this whole village was wiped out by smallpox.

This pandemic, too, could end up being another blip in its long history.